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Win one for the giver

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THE Treasury tax plan of last November, with a number of amendments, has this spring become the President's tax plan. Now, while the proposal is in Congress, much is being made of the so-called ``special interests'' that are pressing for further changes. But among the interests that it may be unfair to call ``special'' are those who earn tax deductions by giving money to charity. After all, they are merely being enabled to make gifts at smaller net cost than would otherwise be the case.

The President has made large and welcome concessions to the organizations that benefit from encouragement to generosity. Still, there remains one important missing link. The President, regrettably, proposes to repeal the ``above-the-line deduction.'' Three years ago Congress voted to allow taxpayers who do not itemize, but file the short form, to deduct the value of their charitable contributions. In the first year the limit of such above-the-line deductions was $25, but by 1986 non-itemize rs were to be able to deduct the full value of their gifts.

In 1984, as in previous years, the overwhelming share of giving -- more than $66 billion -- came from individuals, most of whom used the short form. The President's tax plan would increase still further the use of the short form, to an estimated 76 percent of all taxpayers. Yet he is calling for the immediate elimination of the above-the-line deduction.

What looms ahead if the deduction for non-itemizers disappears is a society in which a dramatically smaller proportion of all taxpayers will have any incentive in the tax code to give more generously. The consequences of this would be profound, extending far beyond the loss of money. It will produce an ominous identification of the charitable-contributions deduction with the small minority of the wealthy still in a position to make use of it.

The glory of the above-the-line deduction is that it proclaims a great truth about the United States: Our vision of democracy is one in which the government has no monopoly of working in the public interest; a democracy in which all citizens, rich and poor, contribute their time and substance to the common good.

Richard W. Lyman is president of the Rockefeller Foundation.


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